President Trump’s new Asst. Secretary of State for Africa candidly explained why election observation and technical assistance have to be firewalled from diplomacy to have integrity

Kenya Cape BuffaloPresident Trump was able to achieve confirmation of his first Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs on June 28 so Ambassador Godec in Kenya finally has a new boss, replacing acting Assistant Secretary Donald Yamamoto.

Trump’s pick, Tibor Nagy, Jr., was most recently Vice Chancellor for International Affairs at his alma mater, Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas, since retiring from a long Foreign Service career in 2002. He worked his way up through a variety of State Department Africa postings to Ambassador in Guinea in 1996, then in Ethiopia from 1999 to 2002.

Nagy has an interesting background as a child refugee. He arrived in Washington, DC in 1957 after the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 which was crushed by the Soviet Union.

He was also the State Department’s visiting diplomat at the University of Oklahoma.

Ambassador Nagy wrote columns for the local Lubbock newspaper in recent times which he publicized on Twitter. One in particular struck me as especially relevant for purposes of this blog and for diplomacy and democracy assistance in East Africa. In “Tibor Nagy: Foreign embassies and elections“, published in Februaury last year, shortly after Trump’s inauguration, Ambassador Nagy explains that in his experience American embassies around the world, like other embassies, are keenly interested in elections and that “elections offer a great mechanism for analyzing the political, social, and economic forces at play in a nation–as well as offering an opportunity to influence by helping the side most sympathetic, or least hostile, to your own country.”

Nagy describes his experience as Ambassador in Guinea in dispatching his subordinate diplomats to fan out and observe voting on behalf of the Embassy.

By noting that diplomats are to be expected to seek to advance their country’s interest even through influencing the election, Nagy presents the classic case of a difference between a “diplomatic” observation and bona fide neutral democracy assistance as I have described here: “Election Observation: Diplomacy or Assistance?”

Nagy has thus squarely identified why Ambassador Ranneberger and I had a difference of interest and opinion in regard to Kenya’s 2007 election when Ranneberger described his view of the International Republican Institute’s USAID-funded International Election Observation Mission (EOM) as “part” of his diplomatic observation effort that involved sending his employees out to report to him for a different purpose. We on the IRI staff in the lead up to the election understood that we were to conduct an independent observation under an internationally agreed code of conduct that did not allow for us to be part of a particular diplomatic operation. Thus my complaint to USAID when Ranneberger interfered.

In the case of Kenya in 2007 we have learned from the Freedom of Information Act that Ranneberger’s approach to “Achieving USG Goals in Kenya’s Election” involved efforts to “build capital” with the incumbent, Mwai Kibaki, while eschewing support for constitutional or election reform. And further that being “forced” to question the announced election results by “widespread fraud” would be “enormously damaging to U.S. interests”:

12.  The outside chance that widespread fraud in the election process could force us to call into question the result would be enormously damaging to U.S. interests.  We hold Kenya up as a democratic model not only for the continent, but for the developing world, and we have a vast partnership with this country on key issues ranging from efforts against HIV/AIDS, to collaboration on Somalia and Sudan, to priority anti-terrorism activities.

So Ranneberger had powerful motive to initially urge Kenyan voters to accept the “results” announced by the Electoral Commission of Kenya even though he had personally witnessed tallies being changed and knew that Chairman Kivuitu did not want to announce Kibaki as the winner but was outweighed by Kibaki’s unilateral election year appointments to stack the Commission. And once straightforward acceptance of the results proved untenable, the diplomatic position shifted to a settlement involving adding opposition leaders into a “power sharing” government while keeping Kibaki in office for the full second term he had claimed.

Needless to say, these diplomatic objectives were not relevant to the facts of the vote itself that presented themselves to us as ostensibly independent Election Observers.

One easy thing that can help incrementally improve the process going forward is for journalists to ask to see the terms of reference for Election Observations they report on so they can understand at least the basics of the funding and contractual relationships. From my experience, otherwise sophisticated reporters convey a surprising degree of credulousness in covering Election Observation Missions. Asking these basic questions could help both Election Observers and Diplomats be more responsible and accountable and contribute to better, freer and fairer elections.

2 thoughts on “President Trump’s new Asst. Secretary of State for Africa candidly explained why election observation and technical assistance have to be firewalled from diplomacy to have integrity

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